Multiple case-study analysis of service-learning as a means to foster sustainability competencies amongst pre-service educators

August 2021

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 27:6, 488-505

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper, the results of a multiple-case study evaluating the influence of service-learning methodology are explored, assessing the implementation of these competencies in sustainability in teacher training degrees (preschool, primary, and social education) at three Spanish universities (UIC, UAM, and USAL).
A previous statistical analysis of the initial level of sustainability competence among students was conducted, which included an exploration of these according to the year of study of university students (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th), and the variables gender and age.
Moreover, a pre-test-post-test design was applied, using non-equivalent groups (without a control group) in order to assess the development of competencies in sustainability among students in five cases (based on subject studied), where the service-learning teaching method was implemented.

The sample
The initial sample of 319 participants selected via intentional nonprobability sampling was eventually reduced to 129 university students for the academic year 2017–18 in the pre-test-post-test (due to the group’s high dropout rate).
The students were enrolled in the following bachelor degrees:
Preschool Education, Primary Education and Social Education at the International University of Catalonia (UIC), the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) and the University of Salamanca (USAL).
The participants were categorised into five case studies where the service-learning teaching strategy was implemented.

Research process and technique
Regarding the methodology, from a quantitative viewpoint, a pre-test-post-test design with non-equivalent groups was used.
There was no control group, and participants took part on a voluntary, confidential and anonymous basis.
Thus, the process essentially consisted of three steps:
firstly, an evaluation of the students’ sustainability competencies across the five case studies took place; secondly, the learning method was carried out (educational intervention through the service-learning methodology, and student participation in service-learning projects in collaboration with social and environmental organisations and institutions); and finally, following completion of the courses, the post-test evaluation took place, revealing the progression and ultimate result of the study.
The research technique consisted of a specific questionnaire consisting of 18 items used to analyse the students’ development of sustainability competencies.

Results and discussion
The previous analysis of the development of sustainability competencies in relation to the year of study (1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th) showed differences in the same direction: statistically differences between 1st and 4th year of study, with higher values in the 4th year compared to 1st year students.
In relation to variables gender and age, no significant differences were found in the statistical analysis.
Hence, the t-test for independent samples outlined focuses specifically on the comparison between the two groups that shown significant differences (Year 1 vs 4).
To answer the research questions, the results of the 129 participants who completed the pre-test and post-test questionnaires across all five case studies were collected.
The data was analysed and contrasted using paired samples t-test to analyse the effect of the service-learning methodology on the different case studies.
It also compared the self-assessment in the development of sustainability competencies of students, with regard to the competencies, competency units, and acquisition levels of the sustainability competencies construct.
In general, it has been established that service-learning has a significant impact on the acquisition of sustainability competencies.
However, it is worth highlighting that the students studying optional subjects (case study 5) with a focus on sustainability scored higher than those studying compulsory subjects (case studies 1–4).
This result can be attributed to the inclination and sensitivity towards sustainability, demonstrated by students studying specific, optional subjects on this topic.
Of the four competencies tested, the SC 1 competence scores most highly across all the case studies, revealing an increase in knowledge with regard to understanding and reflecting upon the links between the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainability.
Learning in real contexts where these links are present is key to comprehending sustainability (Lozano et al., 2017; Wiek et al., 2016).
Across the three levels of competence acquisition (Knows, Knows How, Shows how) service-learning is observed to have a greater impact on the Knows How level.
This is attributed to the fact that the teaching methodology delves into the practice and application of theoretical knowledge in real socio-educational contexts.
It is also worth noting the limitations of this study, due to the sample’s high dropout rate and the pre-test-post-test design with a lack of control group or the high mortality of the sample, especially in case study 4—UAM, a fact that raised doubts about its inclusion in the study, ultimately considering that 34 subjects with both measurements was a representative number to maintain this case.
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) implies promoting cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioural learning objectives (UNESCO, 2017).
In order to evaluate these learnings it is necessary to use a variety of assessment tools such as reflective journals, interviews or discussion groups that allow students to consider the value they place on sustainability both personally and professionally (Bielefeldt, 2013; Vázquez Verdera, 2015).
Therefore collecting qualitative data through studies, interviews, focus groups and daily reflection would provide information on how each student perceives their own progress, on how teaching activities and evaluations are carried out, and finally on how these activities facilitate the acquisition of competency in sustainability.
As for the curriculum, this research has shown that specific courses on sustainability have the greatest impact on the acquisition of competency in sustainability.
The study has also demonstrated the need to holistically integrate these competencies into the curriculum, and the importance of including specific optional or compulsory subjects on sustainability, contextualised according to the students’ subject area.
These subjects provide the greatest opportunities for deepening our understanding of sustainability through specific reflection.

Bielefeldt, A. R. (2013). Pedagogies to achieve sustainability learning outcomes in civil and environmental engineering students. Sustainability, 5(10), 4479–4501
Lozano, R., Merrill, M. Y., Sammalisto, K., Ceulemans, K., & Lozano, F. J. (2017). Connecting competences and pedagogical approaches for sustainable development in higher education: A literature review and framework proposal. Sustainability, 9(10), 1–15.
UNESCO (2017). Education for sustainable development goals. Learning objectives. Available at:
Vázquez Verdera, V. (2015). El aprendizaje-servicio: Una estrategia para la formación en competencias en sostenibilidad. Foro De Educación, 13(19), 193–212.
Wiek, A.; Bernstein, M.J.; Foley, R.W.; Cohen, M.; Forrest, N.; Kuzdas, C.; Kay, B.; Withycombe Keeler, L. (2016). Operationalising competencies in higher education for sustainable development. In M. Barth, G. Michelsen, I. Thomas, M. Rieckmann, et al. (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (pp. 241–260). Routledge. 

Updated: Mar. 28, 2022


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